If I have a hard-and-fast rule when it comes to writing web/news content, it’s this: Nail the first three paragraphs with the right focus and info, and it’s all champagne and truffles the rest of the way.
This sounds easy enough – it’s only three paragraphs. But you’d be surprised how hard it can be, especially when you have no clear idea about the main point of the story, and some of the background information comes via interviews or press releases full of esoteric language that makes no sense to any sentient human being, and you’re on deadline, and the news is so old it’s no longer really news, so you have to figure out another angle.
I’m not sure this exactly applies to writing fiction, but it kinda does. Writing an engaging lede is probably the most important part of any story, fiction or otherwise – and usually the most challenging. Get that wrong, and publishers and agents won’t give you a second look. Most readers won’t, either.
Writing web/news content is an excellent training ground for writing just about anything because it forces you to focus on what is important early on in the story, and then structure the rest of your story in some kind of logical progression. I have a certain amount of expertise at this, having built up decades of experience in the field.
My main focus before starting a non-fiction piece is figuring out what the main point is and then getting to it as quickly as possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cram everything into the first paragraph. You don’t want to overload the reader’s brain before they even get started. But you should try to get to the main point – or at least establish a connection with it – during the first three grafs.
This is important for a couple of reasons. First, you let readers know early on where the story is taking them, and they can either opt in or opt out, depending on whether they give a shit about the subject matter. Second, getting to the main point in the first three grafs gives you a road map for the rest of the piece. All you have to do now is support the main point with data, quotes, timelines, counterpoints, impacts, backstory, etc.
That’s why it’s so important to figure out the main point, the central theme, before launching into the story with all engines firing. You might be 1,000 words in before you realize you completely missed the main point, and then have to start all over again.
I’ll give you an example. One of the websites I write for is Market Values, which focuses on green/sustainability trends in the business world. I write about a dozen articles a month for this site and its sister sites, often focusing on profiles of little-known companies that aim to make a big difference in the battle against climate change.
One company I wrote about recently is Climeworks, a Swiss firm that develops technology to capture carbon dioxide in the air and then store it underground where it can’t harm the planet. The article is titled “Swiss Carbon-Capture Firm Climeworks Captures $650M In Funding” and linked here.
Now, chances are most readers have never heard of Climeworks or carbon-capture technology. They probably don’t know the company raised $650 million in a funding round, either, and even if they did, that’s already fairly old news by the time I am assigned the story.
So, I can’t focus too much on the company or the funding round in the opening graf. I first need to establish a connection to the company that readers can get their arms around. After that, I can move toward the company, one graf at a time.
This is how I wrote the first three paragraphs:
“Here’s a not-so-fun fact about the planet earth: Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years, according to Climate.gov. The last time the atmospheric CO₂ amounts were this high was more than 3 million years ago, during the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period. If you want to know how long ago that was, humans didn’t arrive on the scene until a million years later.
Removing carbon from the earth’s atmosphere is one of the keys to reversing the effects of global warming and a changing climate. One way to do that is through direct air capture, which takes carbon out of the air to store it underground. Once there, excess and legacy CO₂ emissions can no longer contribute to climate change.
Among the leaders in direct air capture is Switzerland-based Climeworks, which has been pioneering the technology since its founding in 2009. The company’s first direct air capture plant was launched in 2017. It now has 15 facilities, including the world’s first large-scale plant, which began operation last September in Iceland.”
Here’s a quick breakdown of why I wrote it this way:
- The first graf gives the reader a practical look at a major environmental problem, which hopefully grabs their attention.
- The second graf offers potential solutions to the problem, which maybe raises interest in how those solutions are progressing.
- The third graf introduces the central theme – the company itself, which is a leader in the solution (graf 2) to the problem (graf 1).
From there, I’m off and running, free to start incorporating all the other information that might be of interest to readers. Like I said: champagne and truffles.
Again, fiction doesn’t necessarily work like this – nor should it. But many of the same rules apply. The main rule is that you want to establish something important and intriguing early on, whether it’s a problem, conflict, mood, setting, dicey situation, or something out of left field that sparks a reader’s interest. You don’t want to wait too long to get to the main themes or points, either.
Here’s how an article on the Writer Magazine website describes the importance of the opening lines in a story or novel:
“In a bookstore with thousands of books around you, that first line – maybe the first two or three – is often the only opportunity you have to hook your reader. If they don’t like your beginning sentence or paragraph, all they have to do is set your book down and pick up another….If, however, you get them with the first line, they’ll read the second. And then the third. And before they know it, they’ve arrived at the next chapter, and all the while, you are building that line of credit with the reader.”
The article goes on to provide different ways the opening line of a story or novel can catch the reader’s attention. These include making the reader curious enough to begin asking questions; introducing tension right off the bat; identifying a conflict; shocking the reader (e.g., “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”); and introducing the finale at the beginning, such as with the famous opening to “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
That one line already provides the gist of what is to come over the next several hundred pages – much of the story will focus on Colonel Aureliano Buendía, he will die in the end, and he was probably involved in some kind of bloody, divisive conflict that landed him in front of a firing squad. It’s packed with information while also being poignant and eloquently written.
(BTW, I have made a couple attempts to read “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and failed. Maybe I’ll give it another go one day).
I would argue that even a lengthy novel of hundreds of pages shouldn’t futz around too long getting to the central them or plot point. Somewhere in the first couple of pages, or even the first few paragraphs, the reader should get some idea of what’s at play here, even if it’s only the barest hint.
One of my favorite book openings of all time is also from one of my favorite books of all time: Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” published in 1971. It’s also a perfect example for this blog because the book is kind of non-fiction, and kind of not.
It purportedly is a true account of Thompson’s journey to cover a car race in Vegas for Sports Illustrated magazine. But it reads like a fiction novel, and you get the sense that a whoooole lot of the story is embellished. It’s also a quick read, at less than 200 pages, so it falls somewhere between a novella and a full-length book.
Anyway, here are the first three grafs in their entirety:
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: `”Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. “What the hell are you yelling about?” he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn to drive.” I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.
It was almost noon, and we still had more than 100 miles to go. They would be tough miles. Very soon, I knew, we would both be completely twisted. But there was no going back, and no time to rest. We would have to ride it out. Press registration for the fabulous Mint 400 was already underway, and we had to get there by four to claim our soundproof suite. A fashionable sporting magazine in New York had taken care of the reservations, along with this huge red Chevy convertible we’d just rented off a lot on the Sunset Strip … and I was, after all, a professional journalist; so I had an obligation to cover the story, for good or ill.”
I can’t tell you how much I love that opening. In three paragraphs it gives you humor, conflict, danger, time and place, an element of mystery (bats? what bats?), and a bent worldview that lets us know we’re in for a wild ride. You also get the main characters – the author (a “professional journalist”) and his attorney (who turned out to be Oscar Zeta Acosta, though he was never named in the book for legal reasons).
At the same time, the passage is structured in much the same way that any non-fiction article is structured, by giving you the main point within three paragraphs. In this case, the main point arrives in Paragraph Three, telling you that these two drug-addled dudes are heading to Vegas to cover the Mint 400 race for a magazine. But you can bet that the race itself will end up being beside the point.
I’ve probably read “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” six or seven times, and I’ll probably read it a few more times before I die. I once went through a half-ass gonzo journalist stage myself, but gave it up because HST was the original and only one who could pull it off.
But one thing I did learn from him, and so many other writers and journalists, is the importance of crafting a good opening and then getting to the main point quickly. It’s a lesson every writer should learn and practice, whether they choose to use it or not.
Note: The photo is of a very young Hunter S. Thompson, pre-Gonzo, taken in Rio de Janeiro in 1962 by his photojournalist friend Bob Bone. I lifted it off the ozTypewriter blog.